Opening Day Was a Good Day For the 1978 Detroit Tigers
Detroit Tigers Post-Game Coverage
The game marked the first time since 1972 that the Detroit Tigers opened the home portion of the schedule with a win. Jubilant fans wanted a curtain call, as had become customary following the entertaining shows that Fidrych usually put on for them. An appreciative Bird obliged, although he tried to get some of his teammates to join him. With a perspective that only he could’ve had, Fidrych said,
"“I just wanted to get a nice game for the people. They wasted all that time, coming down here twice, because we were rained out yesterday. They deserved to see us win… There’s always something extra in your reserve tank, just waiting to come out. And the people bring it out. They crack the bubble in your stomach, and it comes out.”"
The other Fidrych that was in the ballpark, Mark’s dad Paul, was transfixed by what he saw that afternoon. He told Joe Falls of the Detroit Free Press,
"“I was so nervous I couldn’t even drink a beer. Not a one. I had a couple of cigars, but that’s all. I didn’t dare move from my seat. I was afraid something might happen.”"
The game took an efficient two hours and four minutes to play. Fidrych was known for working quickly. One man who appreciated that was Nestor Chylak. He’s one of the handful of umpires who are enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame. In 1978, he was the senior umpire in the American League, and he was the home plate ump in this game. Chylak also had the opportunity to call balls and strikes in two of Fidrych’s rookie-season starts. He commented,
"“I love it when he pitches. He’s always ready, and he’s always around the plate. He takes all the moaning out of the game. You gotta be ready for anything when he’s out there. You don’t have time for any bellyaching.”"
The other man watching Fidrych from behind the plate was Tigers catcher Milt May. This game was only the third time that he caught Fidrych. He caught the right-hander’s first two starts in 1977 before Bruce Kimm was called up from the minors to resume his role as The Bird’s regular catcher. Kimm didn’t make the team in ’78. Assessing what he saw from Fidrych in the season opener, May noted,
"“After the sixth inning, Mark was throwing aggressively. He was challenging the hitters and mixing his fastball and slider. I’ve never seen anybody concentrate like him. There were 52,000 people yelling, and he’s out there like he’s in a room by himself (with) a catcher.”"
It was a successful return to the mound for Fidrych. When he was asked if he had any goals or objectives for the new season, he said that wanted to “stay healthy and see what happens”. Reviewing his Opening Day performance, Fidrych said,
"“I wasn’t satisfied with the way I was behind a lot of guys. I didn’t think I was popping the ball that good. In the first couple of innings, I might have been overthrowing. In the later innings, I wasn’t as strong, but I was still throwing hard and my ball still had pop.”"
Looking back, Opening Day 1978 may have Mark Fidrych’s last hurrah. The Bird’s Game Score (Baseball-Reference.com calculations) was 72. He never achieved one that high again. He pitched another complete game in his next outing on April 12 against the Texas Rangers. After going four innings against the Chicago White Sox on April 17, he left with a sore right shoulder. Fidrych was unable to return to the big leagues that season. A comeback attempt in 1979 lasted only four games. He made nine late-season starts in 1980, and that was it.
On the other hand, the double-play combo of Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell became a fixture in Detroit. They appeared in an Opening Day lineup side by side in the infield 14 more times and played together until the end of the 1995 season. Trammell, who stuck around for one more year for the Tigers after that, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2018. We’re still eagerly awaiting the day that Whitaker joins him in Cooperstown.
The 1978 Detroit Tigers finished 86-76. It was the franchise’s first winning season since 1973. No Detroit team suffered another losing season until 1989. That run of 11 straight years above .500 is still the longest stretch of winning baseball in team history.